Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up
by Dave Barry
cartoons by Jeff MacNelly

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Crown: New York, 1994
244 pages

October 2009

Even what he's not making up is good

Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up is a collection of forty-three mostly short newspaper columns from The Miami Herald by (naturally) Dave Barry. Most are humorous, and the quality ranges from good to excellent.

"Father Faces Life: A Long-Overdue Attack on Natural Childbirth" is Barry's first-person account of getting educated and psyched-up to watch his son being born, and the actual birth and afterbirth. He didn't enjoy the process (only the result), but he turns it into a funny little memoir. Published in 1981, he says this launched his newspaper career. He struggles through the consternating discoveries of a first-time father who's been dragooned into helping (actually mostly hanging around) during a modern "natural birth":

We saw lots of pictures. One evening, we saw a movie of a woman we didn't even know having a baby. I am serious. Some woman actually let moviemakers film the whole thing. In color. She was from California. ...

The father survived the process fine, although rather stressed out. I dunno: been there, done that, as a father myself; and I found the trappings reasonable, and it was quite inspiring to watch my son being born. But Barry does a fine job with his humorous slant.

Pop-Tarts and true-hearts

One of the little gems in this collection, "Tarts Afire", documents his experiment placing Pop-Tarts into a toaster rigged so as not to pop up. Barry had learned that overheated Pop-Tarts in an over-stressed toaster will catch fire and shoot up flames "like a blowtorch". Barry of course has to replicate this himself: outdoors with an expendable toaster. He rightly warns that such a "dangerous experiment" should only be "conducted by a trained humor columnist".

"Hearts That Are True" is a different kind of piece, a thoughtful essay about Elvis Presley, and more particularly about his neighbors next to the Graceland estate, and the devoted fans who still congregate there. It's rather of the type of Tom Wolfe's empathetic excursions into marginal slices of under-culture. If Barry hadn't struck a vein of humor gold, he might have made a fine and different career with a lot more like this one.

"A Space Odyssey" covers some UFO sightings in Florida in 1988. Barry interviews local witnesses and newspapermen, as well as flying-saucer skeptic Philip Klass. Barry is more curious than sympathetic here.

So you have an idea of the range of Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up. There's an almost straight travelogue of China; his son's Science Fair project about ants; and a parody of fictional courtroom dramas compressed into five pages. There are five pieces on Dave Barry's small-boat adventures: one of them longer and moderately serious, all good. There are items on consumers, juvenile romance, punctuation. There are two neatly funny pieces about lawn mowers: high-technology and precision drill-teams:

When I hear some loudmouth saying that the United States is no longer a world technology leader, I look him in the eye and say: "Hey! There's a worm pooping on your shirt!" Then, when he looks down, I spit on the top of his head and sprint away. I'm not about to stand still while somebody knocks my country, not when we're still capable of achievements such as the World's Fastest Lawn Mower.

That's right: The World's Fastest Lawn Mower is produced right here in the U.S.A. by Americans just like yourself except that you are probably normal, whereas they put a jet-powered helicopter engine on a riding lawn mower. I know this because — call me a courageous journalism pioneer if you must — I drove it on my own personal lawn.

Perhaps my favorite of the entire book is "False Alarm", about "our large main dog, Earnest, and our small emergency-backup dog, Zippy", the patio, and the alarm system. Short and very funny.

The Bad Song Survey

The memorable set of columns is the four about popular music:

  • "Mustang Davey": the wrong songs played on the radio while you're in your car.
  • "The Whammies": Dave Barry uses his column for a survey of the worst overall song and worst lyrics.
  • "The Worst Songs Ever Recorded": The survey response was overwhelming. People really care about popular songs; and hit songs that stick in our mind because they are particularly annoying have a long shelf-life in our memory. Many of the respondents were angry that certain songs were written, played, became frequently played hits — and lodged in the memory. Barry discusses many examples, of which you may rather not be reminded. Funny quotes from the lyrics, funny comments by responders and by Barry.
  • "And the Winner Is ...": And here he wraps it up with the finalists, the worst of the worst most-disliked popular songs.

Several years later, Dave Barry wrote up this song survey in a little book of its own, Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs. That book has some overlapping as well as a clutch of different material; but I'd recommend you start with this book's four columns because their sequence shows the process of the survey.

Plus, along with the fine cartoons by Jeff MacNelly, you get a lot of other hilarious material in Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up, surely one of his best and funniest collections.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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